Wisconsin’s 2022 maple syrup production was 440,000 gallons, number four in the nation. According to the US Department of Agriculture, the production was 75,000 gallons higher than in 2021. Canada is the world’s number one producer, harvesting a whopping 14.3 million gallons in 2020.
Quite by chance, I ran into a production effort by the Adamaski Family in Antigo, Langlade County, several years ago, 2006 to be exact.
The family was working and allowed me to photograph what they were doing. Gary Adamski, the eldest, even invited me to watch him go through the boiling process to convert the sap to syrup. It was great fun for me and a great learning experience. I was raised in Buffalo, New York, so I figured the syrup just came out of the tree into the bottle and onto the shelf at the grocery. Wrong-o Buck-o! It is much more complicated than that.
I’ll stay at this time that Vicky, Gary’s wife, has told me how their business has grown and changed over the years. They now have 10,000 taps and receive sap from another 6,000 taps. They also have a tubing system that automates their sap collection operations. Additionally, Jim, their son, his wife Sara, and their son, Jacob, are all in the mix. Visit their Facebook site, “Adamski’s Sugar Bush,” to learn more and see they’ve expanded their offerings.
You can also read the results of an interview with Jim Adamski at Maple Valley Syrup. I am so happy I bumped into this family.
Well, I’m going to drop back to 2006 when I visited them. They didn’t know me, so I had to work a bit to get some of the crew in a photo.
To start, of course, you have to have maple trees. If you want to make a few bucks, one or two maple trees will not do the job. The Penn State Extension has a good primer on “Maple Syrup Production for the beginner.” I’ll follow along with its explanation.
The preferred maple tree is the sugar maple, though the red maple will work but is less sweet. You know, Americans. We have a sweet tooth. Each tree can produce one-half gallon of syrup in one season. Here’s the kicker: one-half gallon requires 15-20 gallons of sap.
Let’s get our lexicon straight. The sap is the liquid that comes out of the tree. The syrup is what is produced after the sap is put through the production process.
Timing is essential to obtain the sap. The trick is to have daytime temperatures slightly above freezing and nighttime temperatures just below freezing. This is known as the freeze-thaw cycle. It is a chemical process. Freezing and thawing the sap creates alternating positive and negative pressure in the tree's vascular tissue (xylem). That, in turn, causes the sap to want to flow out. This is where the farmer comes in.
The farmer drills a hole into the tree using a 7/16 to 1/2 inch drill. This procedure is called tapping. The farmer wants a maple tree with a minimum diameter of 10 inches. The tap is placed about 4.5 feet above the ground. The taphole should be drilled when temperatures are above freezing to reduce damage to the tree. Then a bag is attached to a tube placed into the hole.
I arrived at the Adamski land on March 28. The family had already tapped the trees, and the collection was well in train. You can see two members combing the area looking for bags with sap. You can also see they are carrying buckets. They transferred the sap from the bags to the buckets and brought them back to a central area.
Here you see a bag with a little bit of sap at the bottom. The sap does not come gushing out. It drips out, drop by drop. This is important to remember when we get further down the collection stage and then to processing. It appears they drilled the hole less than 4.5 ft. above ground. They used a clamping device to hold the bag. Most people in Wisconsin use this bag. I have seen buckets used in other states.
The Adamskis transferred the collected sap from their buckets into a larger vat. They had placed the vat on a trailer that could be attached to a tractor.
Once this vat is filled, one of the Adamskis drives it to a truck with what I call the “mega-vat” sitting in its bed.
Here you see a bit of the tubing system they used to transfer the sap from the vat on the tractor to the big vat on the truck. You can see that at this stage of their effort on this day, the big vat is about 25 percent full. Once filled, the truck would drive over to the processing operation, which at the time, 2006, was located in the garage of their home!
I was startled to see the amount of equipment Gary had in his garage! This is what he needed to Process the sap. The first step is to boil the sap and evaporate it. Jeff Janssens, writing for All Over Albany, said, “for every 40 gallons of sap collected, thirty-nine must be boiled off to produce just one gallon of maple syrup.” So the sap has to be boiled off.
Gary had a roaring fire going by the time I got there. I’ll zoom in a bit so you can see the evaporation. Look closely under the vent above the fire. They have worked hard to gather those 40 gallons of sap only to watch 39 evaporate! Stamina is the name of this game.
Gary explained to me what happens next, but it’s now 16 years later, and I have to research a bit and try to assemble his process. This large set of equipment is a wood-fired evaporator. The sap that has been poured into the evaporator. I believe the evaporator is tilted forward. That enables gravity to keep flowing the sap forward closest to the fire. I do not know whether Gary had a reverse osmosis system. If he did, it would use pressure to force the sap through a semipermeable membrane to filter out contaminants. It also removes water from the sap to speed up the concentration and syrup boiling process.
I’m guessing here, but I believe the blue cylinder to the right of the photo is a reverse osmosis system.
The sap travels through a maze of pans until syrup is produced. In the center photo, you see a small faucet with a pressure gauge over what looks like a milk can. Gary can open the tap a bit and check on the stage of the process and the quality of the syrup.
I will also note the sap and syrup pass through several hoses to get from one point to the other in the overall system.
I cannot end this story without showing your this photo, taken on March 26, 2006, at the Adamski house. That’s Gary throwing in some logs to keep that fire burning.
And this one where I sweet-talked him into posing! Handsome dude, eh!